Friday, December 31, 2010

Party on, Cliff and Newman!

Who has the best office Christmas parties? The U.S. Postal Service.

The traditional office party usually relies on participants self-catering the party with some array of potluck dishes and treats. If you’re lucky, most of the partygoers will bring items from the local supermarket bakery; if not, you’re stuck with an assortment of bean dips and fruitcakes that make you want to go back to work. But apparently, the postal service just goes to the back room to round up treats that were scheduled to go elsewhere.

Every year, St. Pauli Girl spends a week baking goodies and putting together spices, jams and sauces to send out to the lucky few on our Christmas list. This year she sent over 11 packages via the U.S. Postal Service (she had to use a little red wagon to haul them inside the office). The postal worker asked St. Pauli Girl if the packages contained anything perishable. Fearing it might be more expensive, she said, “no.” Then she thought she heard the worker happily mumbling, “One for them, one for us, one for them, one for us,” as he placed each package in different stacks. Turns out that may have been accurate.

Yesterday, I opened an envelope from the post office which contained a torn off address from one of our packages. The letter stated “this address looks like it fell off one of your packages. If you’d like us to look for the package, please fill out this form so we can better identify it.” Hmmm, a package full of goodies with an address label neatly torn off? They may as well have added: “P.S. Can I have the recipe for that nut roll? Fabulous!”

I suspect some genius postal worker goes through the non-perishable packages, shakes them, and sets aside any that sound suspicious to be enjoyed later at the holiday party. After all, the shipper won’t complain because if he/she does, he/she can be put in postal jail because the shipper lied about the contents being perishable. Victory for the postal party!

But actually, UPS and Fed Ex probably have better parties. While it is illegal to ship alcohol though the U.S. mail, it’s only frowned upon by UPS and Fed Ex. They have a “don’t ask/don’t tell” policy. Actually it’s more like a “don’t tell” or “act lawyerly” philosophy because they will ask what’s in the package. And you have to say something like “cooking supplies” or, in your best Jackie Chiles voice, “yeast samples.”

So while the post office has a guy in the backroom searching for cookies, UPS and Fed Ex has a team of people looking for hooch. End result: a much more entertaining party than the postal service. They also have foolproof logic: it’s not illegal to ship it but we forbid it and so not only do we not have to deliver it, we won’t give you your money back.

The lesson here is that if you’re going to ship holiday gifts, ship a fruitcake. Then get a job at UPS or Fed Ex and enjoy great holiday parties. We apologize to friends and family that did not get their packages. But the post office would like you to know it was delicious.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Our Miracle On Ice

It was the typical holiday plan: pack up the kids, gifts, food, pillows, blankets and take a 15 hour drive to see family over the holidays. What could go wrong? We never have a white Christmas. Spring tornadoes sure, but not blizzards on Christmas.

Our master plan involved renting a van then driving on Christmas night in 2000 from the Texas panhandle to Tennessee to visit relatives on my side. It would probably be the only time we would ever do it with St. Pauli Girl’s kids, Eduardo and Raquel. They were probably less than thrilled but by driving overnight, we figured they’d be asleep and less likely to complain.

The weather forecast called for a snowstorm but what do meteorologists know? At least this time, they knew a lot. On Christmas morning, snowflakes filled the air. The bigger problem was the ice storm that shut down I-40 in Oklahoma with reports of ice and snow as far south as Dallas. I jumped onto the internet and scoured forecasts and road conditions. I found an alternative route by going south through Dallas. “If we can just get through Dallas by nightfall, we’ll be safe,” I told St. Pauli Girl. “But we need to leave as soon as possible.”

Now by “as soon as possible,” I meant “let’s get in the car and leave right now.” Unfortunately, we had to still pick up the rental van, send the dog to Grandma’s, load the van and get Eduardo and Raquel to pack their bags. Four hours later we were ready to pull out. The latest online road conditions report showed ice all the way to Dallas, but no roads were closed at that time. “And those reports are always ultra-conservative,” I explained to St. Pauli Girl. “Someone sees a snowflake and the plow trucks come out. It’s like those yellow highway signs showing a curve and recommending 35 miles per hour but you know you can really go about 55.”

The first twenty minutes of the trip went well. Snow was on the ground, but the roads were just wet, like driving through a nice spring shower. An hour in, snow was coming down a little harder, and you could see some slush on the road. I slowed down a bit but figured 55 mph would make okay time in this weather. I started to notice cars pulled over on the shoulder. “There sure are a lot of broken down cars,” I said. “They don’t build them like they used to.”

At this point, the van began slipping on icy spots so I slowed down a little more. As we neared a small town, flashing police lights alerted us to three cars in the median. “Idiots,” I said. “Obviously driving too fast for conditions.” I slowed down again.

A few minutes later, we drove past a Suburban laying on its side about fifty yards off the road.

“Did you see that?” St. Pauli Girl asked. “Maybe we should stop and check on them.”

“There’s no one there,” I said anxious to keep going and not lose anymore time.

“How do you know?”

“This is the country. They probably just park their car in the front yard.”

“On its side?”

“Well, it was probably on concrete blocks and the storm knocked it off. Besides if it had been a recent crash, the wheels would still be spinning, lights would be on or something,” I reasoned.

We passed several more cars that had gone off the road. Sleet came down harder, and I slowed down to about 40 mph. I could feel the van fishtail quite regularly now. I slowed down to 30. Our five-hour pace to Dallas had now become ten and what started out as a 15-hour trip had increased to about 27. But we pushed onward.

Finally, we came around a curve where the ice would not cooperate with our wheels. With “steer in the direction of the skid” pounding in my brain, I took us straight down a short embankment and into the snow covered median. Raquel screamed that we were crashing. Luckily there were no obstructions, and momentum carried us all the way through the median until we were pointed in the other direction just off the shoulder of the west bound side of the highway as if we had just made a U-turn.

“Wow,” I said. “What do you think?”

“I think we should keep going,” St. Pauli Girl replied. “We’re headed southeast. It’s going to get better!”

“You know what? Since we’re pointing in this direction, I’m going home.”

I pulled back onto the highway and slowly headed west. The storm became much fiercer, leaving a thick layer of snow atop the ice. But I wasn’t cold; I was covered in sweat. The snow came down so hard and fast it froze to the windshield before the wipers could clear it. We had to stop every 15 minutes and manually clear the windshield. Luckily the worst of the storm was headed east. By the time we hit the outskirts of our hometown, we faced only snowy roads.

We finally made it home, our 150-mile round trip having taken four hours. I sat down and St. Pauli Girl asked if it was wine time. “I’ll have scotch,” I said. “Make it a double.”

So in the spirit of the season, I send this holiday caveat to everyone: when the road department reports that conditions are bad and you should stay home, they aren’t kidding.

Monday, December 13, 2010

My Big Lumberjack Adventure

As I have mentioned before, we live on a two-acre piece of country property that requires about 50 times the amount of a work as your normal suburban lot. A golf course greens keeper once owned the property, and he planted a lot of extra shrubbery that the golf course couldn’t use. I’d rather he’d have just built a couple of par 3’s.

Due to age, drought, and neglect, prior to us moving in, many shrubs and trees had perished. St. Pauli Girl has been anxious to clear the land of this dead stuff. I agree, but being green-minded, I’d rather do it naturally, via say lightning or wildfires or waiting for the trees to rot so that we can just kick them over. Sure, it may take longer, but the property will be as God and nature intended it. But St. Pauli Girl would like it to be as St. Pauli Girl intended it.

This past weekend St. Pauli Girl’s brother happened to be passing through. She decided to make him work for his food and lodging by having him bring his chainsaw. (We will now refer to him as Grizzly since he has a beard, a chainsaw, and built his own cabin in the mountains, although to be fair, he looks more like a fifty-ish James Brolin with a goatee than he does Grizzly Adams.)

Saturday morning, after a big farm breakfast, Grizzly and I headed over to a group of poplar trees where Grizzly fired up the chainsaw and made quick work of them. I mostly stood out of the way and as each tree came down, yelled, “Timber!”

“What are you doing?” Grizzly asked.

“Aren’t you supposed to do that? Warn everyone, like yelling ‘fore’ in golf?”

“Actually, you’re supposed to make sure the tree doesn’t fall on me.”

Understanding my role better, we buzzed through tree after tree. Then we went over to a different kind of tree, the biggest one yet, and after felling it, Grizzly created a birdbath stand from the stump. I got on my knees and looked at it from eye level. “It’s crooked,” I said helpfully.

“Think of it more as a bird water park with a giant slide,” he said.

After lunch it was time to attack the granddaddy, the old oak tree in the chicken yard. The tree had been dead for years, with large branches hanging over the fence to the neighbor’s yard. Grizzly walked around the tree looking for the best plan of attack. “How well do you know your neighbors?” he asked.

“Enough that they won’t mind if we drop some branches in their yard, but they’ll sure be mad if we crush the fence.”

At this point we brought in a new element of danger: a stepladder. Grizzly would have to scale the ladder and operate the chainsaw from above while I stood in the next county. The first branch bounced off the top of the wire fence and fell into the neighbor’s yard. We studied the fence.

“That wasn’t so bad,” I said.

“Yeah, I thought the fence was a goner for sure.”

I pulled up on the wire fence to make it look like it was still mostly standing. “We can blame it on this vine. There’s a lot of overgrowth here.”

“You can just drop a post right there. Piece of cake,” Grizzly said as if that would be easy for me.

“Yeah, I think I’m just going to blame the vine.”

Next came a large multi-limbed section. Grizzly mounted the ladder while I stood on the ground holding a piece of rope attached to a thick, 30-foot branch with many smaller branches shooting from it. Grizzly fired up the chainsaw. “Ready?” he asked.

(It’s important to note here that some wood is denser and heavier than others. So far, we had cut down nothing but poplar and fir trees which are so light that I carried them with one hand over my shoulder like a javelin. Oak is much heavier, I would soon find out. Much, much.)

The idea here was that as Grizzly cut the limb, I would pull on the rope to steer it away from the tree, the ladder, and most notably Grizzly. I could see the chainsaw going through the limb, and as it got about 3/4 through, I tugged hard on the rope. Well, it would have been a hard tug for a poplar tree. But this was oak. Suddenly the limb separated from the tree, huge branches crashing to the ground while the main limb swerved back, knocking the ladder which spun around on one leg with Grizzly clinging to the top and frantically grasping the vibrating, still-hungry chainsaw.

Luckily the limb fell to the ground, the ladder teetered back onto three legs, and Grizzly managed to avoid dismembering himself. I dropped the rope and called out to BooBoo, our dog. “BooBoo, run boy, run! Go tell the women-folk there’s been an accident.”

I ran to the ladder and secured it while Grizzly turned off the saw. He handed it down to me, then climbed down the ladder. He wiped his brow and breathed a sigh of relief while I studied the ladder.

“I think you bent the ladder,” I said.

Grizzly looked it over and knocked it back into shape. The incident didn’t seem to bother him much. All I could say was, “Hmph! Who’d a-thought oak was so heavy?”

An hour later, we stood in the yard holding a rope attached to the very top branch of the tree. We began to rock in unison, pulling the branch toward us. Grizzly said, “Let’s bounce it and count to three, then we’ll yank on it with everything we’ve got.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Oh yeah, and don’t forget to run.”

Friday, December 3, 2010

Auto-Complete This!

Google, I think I have to break up with you. And it’s not me, it’s you.

I have long been a fan. I even had you as my homepage for years. I always appreciated the quick response time and didn’t even mind the suggestions that popped up as I entered my own search words. But now your attempts to read my mind as I type in each letter has complicated my life so much and made you so high maintenance that I must now consider other search engines.

My computer is old, I admit. In human years, she would say she’s 39. (We all know what that means.) She also has a smoker’s cough, and her bones creak every time I save a file. But she still does the job she was hired for. I don’t use her to play video games or watch movies, and the hardest math I do is multiply and divide. Someone could replace my monitor with an old black and white text monitor and I probably wouldn’t notice.

But no, Google had to slip in its little auto-complete feature when I wasn’t looking. (Kind of like a roommate inviting a loser friend to move in and saying, “It’s just for a few days. You won’t even notice he’s here,” but the cigarette burns on the couch, pizza bones on the counter, and empty Schaefer beer cans in the shower scream, “Yeah, he’s still here!”)

The result? One of us has to go. So let me illustrate my last hook-up with Google:

Me: [I type “z” in the Google search box but nothing appears]

Google: What? Huh? Is someone there? [Rubs his eyes.]

Me: [My fingers are poised on the keyboard waiting for “z” to appear.]

Google: Okay, okay. Like, hold on a sec, will ya.? Hmmm, where’s my pants?

Me: [I type “o” after the “z” and still nothing appears.]

Google: Be right back. Gotta get some coffee.

Me: [I stare at the screen trying telepathically to get Google moving.]

Google: “Z.” Got it. Let’s see, what starts with Z? Z, Z, Z, zzzzz. *yawn*.

Me: Hurray! [“Zo” appears on the screen. I type in another “o.”]

Google: Okay, I’m gonna read your mind. Zo. Okay, Zamboni. Nah, that’s not it. I’ve got it--Zoey! You’re looking for porn with a girl named Zoey, huh? Or, maybe you’re thinking of Batman sounds, like “Zowie” and “Zounds”?

Me: [I bang my head on the keyboard waiting for control to return to me.]

Google: Aha, now you’ve got “zoo” in there. You want to go to the zoo!

Me: [I type in “k” resulting in “zook” in the search box.]

Google: Okay, I see you’re in central Texas. Let’s see what I got. San Antonio, no, how about this! [A page of Austin zoo links appears, including a map with pushpin markers.] Bam! Less than .0046 seconds! How’s that?

Me: Not by my watch! And I don’t want to go to the zoo!

Google: I think you do. That’s why I changed the search box to “Austin Zoo.”

Me: No, dammit, I typed in “zook!”

Google: Yeah, but I think so much faster than you that I knew you really wanted to go to the zoo.

Me: Jesus. I’m trying to get some info about a restaurant called “Zookini’s.” That is all.

Google: There isn’t one in Austin.

Me: I know! That’s not the point!

Google: You can eat at the zoo you know. How ‘bout I find you some zoo concessions, would you like that?

Me: No! [I try to ignore him and resume my typing but I haven’t noticed that he’s changed the search box. After I finish typing the search box displays “Austin Zoo kinis.”]

Google: Did you mean Austin Bi-kinis?

Me: What? No! Argghhh! [I backspace through the search box and start over. I type “zookiins” but only “zoo” appears in the search box.] Darn it! Misspelled it. Come on already!

Google: Hold on, freshening up my coffee while I look up other zoos since you don’t want to go to the Austin zoo.

Me: I don’t want to go to any zoo! Will you just show me what I typed so I can fix the misspelling?

Google: I’m way ahead of you. [A search page appears listing several zoos, a Ron Zook Insurance Agency, and several ads.]

Me: [The search box appears and I fix my misspelling. I start to press return.]

Google: Hold on there, sport.

Me: I don’t want to go to the zoo!

Google: Did you mean “zookini’s”?

Me: I already told you that.

Google: Yeah, but you forgot the apostrophe.

Me: They both get the same results.

Google: Maybe this time, but not always. So are we done here?

Me: Yes, I think so.

Google: Umm, okay. [Starts humming a tune.]

Me: Well, what are you waiting for?

Google: A little sugar?

Me: No, I am not thanking you.

Google: You’re welcome.

Me: That’s it! Pack up your auto-complete and get out!